Tag Archives: popular culture

The INC5 Playlist…Because Every UN Conference Needs a Soundtrack

by Danya Rumore

It’s Day 5, and we’re in what could be considered the “meat and potatoes” of the INC5 mercury treaty negotiations. With only one—or possibly two—days to go, the pressure is on.

Perhaps this is why the UNEP Convention gods (or whoever decides these things) chose to play Queen’s “Under Pressure” over the loudspeakers at the end of Tuesday’s afternoon plenary session. A stark contrast to the relatively quiet dispersal that often follows the plenary sessions, the sudden blast of music startled many of us MITers out of our late afternoon stupor. And as we filed out of the plenary room—amused by the not-so-subtle musical message—we had an epiphany: INC5 definitely needs a playlist.

This conclusion has become even more obvious throughout the negotiation proceedings of the last two days: “Under Pressure” has been played repeatedly before and after the plenary sessions.  It seems that UNEP either has yet to download iTunes or they’re seriously in need of some musical inspiration.

Thankfully, we’re here to help. Who better to consult on music than a team of nerdy MIT PhD and Masters students?

So here it is: our crowd-sourced recommendations for the INC5 negotiation’s playlist, as well as some guidance for the appropriate moments in which they should be played.


The INC5 Playlist:

  1. Under Pressure” by Queen—as the UNEP has figured out, this song is basically always appropriate in a final treaty negotiation. The Freddie Mercury connection is also amusing.
  2. Running on Empty” by Jackson Brown—to be played during sessions going later than 11:00pm, particularly those starting after 11:00pm.
  3. We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles—to be played at the beginning of each contact group, particularly those that have been stuck on the same issues for multiple sessions.
  4. Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin—to be played whenever one party has stated the same point 3 or more times.
  5. You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones—to be played as a reminder that, well, you can’t always get what you want.
  6. I Heard It through the Grapevine” by Creedence Clearwater Revival—to be played in the interpreters’ booth (look for Julie van der Hoop’s upcoming blog on this topic, you’ll see what we mean!)
  7. Fernando” by ABBA—to show our fondness for INC5 Chair Fernando Lugris
  8. If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies—to be played during all financial assistant discussions.
  9. Heat of the Moment” by Asia—to be played as the negotiations get intense; it’s amazing what happens when things get intense.
  10. The Final Countdown” by Europe—to be played during the last 24 hours of the negotiation.
  11. If an agreement is reached:Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis –triumphant celebration!  If not:  “Disappointment” by the Cranberries—you get the message.

Bonus Tracks

Just in case no agreement is reached by the end of the day on Friday and we need a little extra musical inspiration:

  1. Spectacles” by Jenna Lindbo—to inspire some cooperation (the refrain is “”Do you wonder what things look like in other people’s eyes? I’ll take off my spectacles and give yours a try. You should put on mine. I think you might be surprised to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes”)
  2. Mercury Poisoning” by Graham Parker and the Rumour—to motivate some action on a really important issue.
  3. Running out of Time” by Hot Hot Heat— to remind the delegates that, well, they’re running out of time.

What else should be on the INC5 playlist? If you’ve got any ideas for other tunes to include, post a comment below and let us know!



Mercury Poisoning in Popular Culture

By: Philip Wolfe

In writing for this blog, I’ve been considering the role of communication and message-building in science and science policy. I’m often surprised about the extent of people’s scientific knowledge. Last year I was in a bar in Cambridge that was having a trivia contest, and 90% of the trivia teams there were able to correctly identify the isotope of cesium used to define the second as a unit of time measurement. Now, this was not a random sampling of the US population at large (it was a heavy MIT crowd), but I still think that’s pretty amazing.

Yet, while I’ve been prepping for these negotiations, I have been speaking with friends and colleagues and many of them have no idea about the problems mercury poses to the world. How can the same group of people, a group that clearly has a good science foundation, be so unaware of something that is such a significant policy issue?

I don’t have a great answer (and I would love to hear thoughts from other people), but I thought it might be fun to look at how mercury and mercury-related health impacts are portrayed in popular culture to perhaps gain some insight.

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury

It turns out there may not be a whole lot of insight to gain. Over 177 episodes of House, not once was mercury the final diagnosis, and its not like the show shied away from outré solutions. Gold, cadmium, cobalt, lead and even selenium poisoning all make it on the final diagnosis tally sheet.

In fact, mercury poisoning is rarely mentioned as even a possibility for whatever pain or illness the primary patient may have. I’ll give the writers credit, when it comes up the details are pretty accurate. In “Son of a Coma Guy,” the team guesses that seizures and visual problems could be caused by mercury exposure at a luxury yacht factory. It’s a neat throwaway fact, as mercury was formerly used in mildew-resistant paints, but that practice has been discontinued in the US since the early 90’s.

One episode of the CBS Drama The 11th Hour, in which a brilliant biophysicist solves science crimes for the FBI and stops deadly experiments (yes, that really was the premise), did look at the long lasting and potentially devastating consequences of mercury releases to lakes and watersheds. I haven’t seen the episode, but judging by the fact that the series was cancelled after just 18 episodes, I think its fair to say it wasn’t part of the cultural zeitgeist.

In movies, mercury is not represented much more. While toxic chemicals have been covered in “based on true events” movies like A Civil Action (trichloroethylene) and Erin Brockovich (hexavalent chromium), Hollywood seems to be pretty silent on mercury. The glaring exception is a wonderfully bizarre environmental agitprop horror film from the 1970s called Prophecy. In it, mercury waste from a logging company creates violent raccoons, salmon large enough to eat a duck and, worst of all, a giant bear-monster that may also be a reincarnated, evil forest spirit. What it lacks in accuracy (and it lacks a lot in accuracy) it more than makes up for in terrible special effects.

Mercury’s absence in music is a bit more understandable. “Big Issue” songs, like Joni Mitchell calling for farmers to put away their DDT, have not been in vogue over the past few decades. The Dead Kennedy’s song “Kepone Factory,” about a chemical quite similar to DDT, references the Minamata disaster. In Minamata, Japan, over 2000 people have been diagnosed with a severe neurological impairments from mercury exposure. Japanese-American composer Toshiko Akiyoshi has written a jazz suite about the Minamata disaster, but unfortunately the LP with the most acclaimed recording of this piece has not been released in the US.

I’m not sure why mercury has not been more prevalent in popular culture. The potential dangers are chilling enough and the real-life tragedies (here for example) are certainly deserving of greater acknowledgement and provide compelling narratives for art. It certainly makes it harder for scientists and policymakers to enact real change, or for victims to be compensated for that matter, because there’s such a dearth of awareness of the underlying problem.

I wonder if some celebrity took up mercury as a personal cause if it could raise the public consciousness about the issue. There is evidence that it could. In late 2008, Jeremy Piven dropped out of the Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow, citing hydrargaria from sushi consumption. When the news broke, Google searches for “mercury poisoning” nearly doubled.

Getting a high-profile public figure to support a global treaty on mercury could be one way to improve public awareness. As a scientist though, I fear the flip side of that coin. If mercury becomes a cause célèbre overnight, there may not be enough scientifically-sound publically-available literature to properly support any nascent movement. Ask a scientist studying vaccine safety how they feel about Jenny McCarthy for an idea of how scientists can quickly find themselves unable to control a scientific conversation.